Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa: Confessions a Working Mom

I spent the last two days of my vacation doing some stay-at-home mom things - drop-offs at day camp, making lunches, tidying up a little, running errands. I loved it. I didn't miss work one bit, though surprisingly I didn't have my usual Sunday Night Syndrome before returning to work (though technically my last vacation night wasn't on a Sunday anyway.)

But I've been thinking a lot about how I got to this point - trying to juggle the home duties, motherhood, chores, etc. with a full-time profession in a high-stress calling. Why did I take this path? Should I have?

When I showed up to med school with my kid, even my primary care physician exclaimed, "Are you CRAZY?!"

Then there was the first day of day care. My little daughter, 10 months old at the time, thew herself on the nest of stuffed animals and cried all day. ALL. DAY. Even when they put her in a high chair so she could at least feed herself some Cheerios, there were big tears rolling down her pudgy little cheeks. That night I cried - not all night, but after all, I had to get up early to get all her diapers and bottles packed to go to day care the next day before my anatomy class. Maybe all the finger-pointers were right. I was selfish to push on with med school now that I had a child.

Well, if they were, I pushed on anyway. Over the years the judgments have come and gone. Not just for me; when a woman who was a year behind me in residency was expecting her first child, she overheard a female attending physician declare that it was irresponsible for women to get pregnant in residency.

And it's not just judgment; there's disrespect, too. Now, I am not that easily offended by non-"politically-correct" things. I hate the whole phrase anway - it's just a contrived, trendy way of expressing the concept of RESPECT, which needs no other glossy moniker. But here's an example of what I mean. When I was nursing my son and trying to pump and store milk during the day, during my surgery rotation, the surgery residents who were lounging around the call room door kept hooting, "Why don't you do that out here?" Let's not pretend the medical world has healed itself of sexist tyranny. The glass ceiling is not that much higher; I think our heads have just gotten a little more resilient hitting it.

But there were groups in the hospital that were nastier about it. The surgery guys - well, they were fooling around; they really didn't mean any harm. The ob/gyn residents, though - what a group of harpies. They gave me such a hard time about trying to nurse - ob/gyn! go figure - that I just couldn't make my quotas, and my milk dried up during that rotation. At the time I mourned because I felt I had failed my son and also missed the close bond we shared through nursing.

That was med school. Residency was harder. I was getting up at 5 in the morning and often not getting home till 6 or 7 at night. I was our household's cook. I was always exhausted and stressed-out, and thus frequently snappish and difficult to live with. My long-suffering husband admonished me patiently and did a HUGE chunk of the other household work - laundry, yard work, bills. And there were things that just weren't important enough on the endless to-do list, like ironing, de-cluttering, etc.

We shared our parenting responsibilities with day care in the early years, and recently with au pairs. We have been very lucky; our kids have done relatively well with our adjuncts. The separations were repeatedly painful, as were their disappointed groans every time I reminded them I'd be on call and wouldn't be able to see them for 24 hours. I could imagine the ghosts of people's mental judgments, hear them in my head: You let someone ELSE raise your kids, and spend more time with them than you do? Bad, bad mommy. You work 80 hours a week? Do your kids even know you any more? And look at your house, good Lord, how can you live like this? And you're feeding your husband cereal for dinner? What kind of woman ARE you?

The specter came to life every time my neighbor said hello. At EVERY school meeting or chance encounter in the neighborhood - I mean EVERY single one - she would greet me with, "Oh! You exist!" How on earth can one reply to that graciously seventy times seven times? Yeah, I exist, and see those happy, well-adjusted, creative, nice children over there? I helped them get to that place. Yeah, me - on-call every 4th-night, over-stressed, underpaid little me. Now I think I'll go make out with my adoring husband.

But there were signs that time apart, instead of having me breathe down their necks all day, offered its own blessings. We cherished our family time and never took it for granted. We laughed at each other's little failings and foibles more. Our precious little time together became extraordinary even if we were engaged in ordinary things. We were and are CLOSE.

Today I remain hopeful that my choices have done our family more good than harm. As my husband keeps reminding me, the proof is in the pudding. Our marriage is happy, our children are happy, our family is happy. Though there are frictions between us, when she's upset about something, something really important to her, my daughter comes to me. And my son reassured me, just today, "Even if you had to be on-call for a whole month, I wouldn't feel like you abandonded me."

This is the same little boy who sat on the edge of the bed listening to me have an awful practice session on the oboe last night and clapped at every pause, before finally asking,

"Mommy, are you a good oboe player?"
"No, sweetie, not at all."
Then, after pausing to consider this, he said, "Well, I think you are. Are you an okay player?"
"Not remotely, sweetie. It takes a long time and a lot of practicing to get to be even an okay oboe player."
"When I start my violin lessons, it'll take me a long time to get good too."

It's all a work in progress.

If I've learned anything about my decision to work, it's gratitude that I was free to make the decision in the first place, and that there's enough unconditional love in this family to enable that decision to bear fruit. So I guess I won't quit my day job just yet. Let the work continue.


Lee said...

A lovely, honest post. I decided differently with my children, but I sincerely doubt they were better off. In fact, a little more 'away time' might have been advantageous for all concerned. Think about traditional societies - no one person does all the mothering.

Mitch Keamy said...

What a great post. Your husband, though, is right. We all make choices in this life, and if we are well intentioned, that is enough. We make things work as best we can. I'm pretty old by blogging standards, and after thirty+ years in medicine, it is my experience that if your heart is right (and you're a little lucky) it works out pretty good. You go girl...

T. said...

Mitch and Lee, thank you so much for your comments! They mean a great deal to me.